This weekend, and by that I mean Saturday and Sunday I, along with a few members of the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble worked a total of 21 hours for no pay, with few breaks, in the steaming hot, smelly and ill-fitted Powerhouse theater. On Saturday, the day I called in sick to work(my regular job) to do even more work; harder work for no pay, we worked from 10:00 AM to 10:00 PM with around half an hour for lunch(at which time I had a slice of pizza). What is this crazy thing we’re doing? And more importantly, what kind of idiots are we to put in so much of our precious time and effort into something that maybe just over one hundred people will see(If the group sells enough tickets). Putting it into a bigger picture perspective is like suicide for the psyche; what kind of people do this stuff?
The show is called the Water Engine, by David Mamet. It’s about an inventor(Charles Lang) who creates an engine that runs on water, tries to patent it and gets a dose of real-world greed and gritty evil when he loses his engine and perhaps much more. Basically, it’s a downer, but really it’s not. The show is set as a radio play, our actors each play several characters with different voices and mannerisms, minor costume changes create what seems like whole new people out of thin air! This leads to amusing characterizations, much more than that though it creates an internal world, in which, like in our world things happen to people and life goes on. The negative events of some characters have nothing to do with others, life simply goes on as before because, how would they know that somebody on the opposite side of town is having a terrible day. They don’t. So despite the synopsis sounding dreary, the life of the show is in the setting (Chicago 1934, The Century of Progress) as much as in the business of Charles Lang.
This is the show, but it could be any show, I’ve worked on many both with the Ensemble and with other small companies, in school and out and it’s often the same drill. Me, in whatever role I play in the production (actor, designer, now and usually Stage Manager) and some of the rest of the company (always a dedicated few) hole ourselves up and sacrifice our time to hang lights and program the board and mess around with sound cues, synching things up, changing levels, finding just the right music or sound effect. A scene comes to mind from the last show I worked on, Never Swim Alone: Me sitting in the dressing room/trailer beside the theatre at 3AM on my laptop mixing sound effects for a show to open the following evening, waiting for the primer to dry so we can continue to paint the stage, because everyone knows: The show MUST go on!
And it is never just me (even though sometimes it seems as if I’m the first person to arrive at the theater and the last person to leave), everyone involved with the shows –from the Director down to an assistant of an assistant stage manager make the show happen, sometimes putting in hours above and beyond the call of duty. Actor’s who have it hard enough learning lines and mastering a role (or many as in the Water Engine) selflessly chipping in with whatever they can. Collaboration really is the glue that allows small theatre to function; when many people come together towards a common goal that does not involve any significant financial gain and is not always glamorous or fun — this is what keeps art flourishing. And naysayers are always predicting, always reporting how other mediums are replacing theatre. How every season has less and less audiences, but that is just not true. At least not in my experience. In my experience, when everyone in the theatre group pitches in with the promotion, in conventional ways (press releases, passing out postcards etc) or unconventional ways (going out dressed in costume, creative marketing strategy), and when the show is truly a quality production, the tickets DO SELL. But they Never sell themselves.
I remember once, I was the only audience member at an improv comedy show — that’s right, I gave all the suggestions. The group of eight(or so) performed a full show for me because I was a paying audience member and I showed up. It was a great time, laughing my ass off at almost every skit. Afterwards I partied with the cast and again had a great time, I was treated like royalty because I was there to appreciate their work. But for me there was nothing to it. I simply came because I was invited by a member of the company, she was a friend, I saw her, she gave me a postcard, asked me nicely to come and I said I would. Nothing to it. So why was I the only one? I pondered this question driving home that night and have so many times since then. It’s the sticking point for almost all small theatre groups, it’s why young groups rarely survive to maturity: Lack of audience! Shows go up with no one to appreciate them. All the work I mentioned over and over above goes on, and it’s truly for nobody, therefore for nothing.
Now I’ve never really had a problem inviting people to see shows, the people I know know that I work on theatre and are aware that I have in the past invited them to see shows I’m working on and will do so in the future. Some people always come out, some come out sometimes, and some people never do. The latter category Always saddens me. I just want to scream at these people, “Please!! Don’t say No to me! We’ve all worked SO many hours to put this thing on; we’ve done it For You! And it’s a beautiful thing not because we give away our living hours for art, innocent like children in the quixotic charge of months or weeks until the opening night lights fill the stage…but because there’s an empty seat in the audience that is for you, and you’re not in it.”
…And it’s such a great show! That’s what this whole thing is about. Everyone knows that the audience being in the seats is more important than how much the seats cost. If there was one thousand dollars in every chair, for every show, but not a single audience member, what’s the point? Sure, we could keep performing for empty houses, but putting on a show for an empty house is like a blind person talking to himself in sign language. I mean, if an actor delivers a stirring speech to an empty house, Do the actor’s syllables make a sound?
Mostly this is a selfish rant, because my original thought was how bad I felt because one of my friends didn’t want to come see the new show, then it chained to how people can be dismissive at show invitations, then it chained to how people say they’ll come, but never show up. And it’s all about my feeling of sadness and betrayal because regardless of what part I have in the production of a theatre show, it’s always like a baby to me. It comes down to God Dammit, I’ve given up so much of what most people taken for granted to make this show happen, PLEASE COME ENJOY IT! PLEASE COME APPRECIATE IT! Because like all art, it is an indirect part of me, so when people dismiss it, flake out on it, don’t bother, ignore, they are doing these things to me. And much as I try not to, I take it personally. And it hurts.
I’d like to think that we worked a twenty-hour week in two days for something.
September 3 2007
(p.s. – sorry if there are any errors, it is posted as is.)